Women and children first to suffer from underfunding in Indigenous police forces, MMIWG hears

Half of police officers working in Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario don't have any backup or adequate resources, the chief of the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service testified Monday at the federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).

Canada's largest First Nations police force outlines how chronic lack of funding puts communities at risk

Edmund Jourdain said he remembers searching the woods with his grand-father for his sister, Anne-Marie, after she disappeared near Port-Cartier, Que., in 1957. (Julia Page/CBC)

The chief of Canada's largest First Nations police force held back tears as he looked back on his years with the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service (NAPS), which serves 34 communities in Northern Ontario.

"When you put a badge on and say you're going to protect people, and you don't have the tools to do it, and you see the devastation day in and day out, it's tough," said Terry Armstrong, who is only a few days shy of his retirement.

Armstrong was a witness on the first day of the latest round of hearings of the federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), taking place in Quebec City.

This leg of the inquiry is focusing on themes that have emerged from the testimony of more than 1,200 families and survivors across Canada, including policing and the correctional system.

Armstrong described how 24 years of chronic underfunding threatened the safety of the communities serviced by NAPS, as well as the safety of the officers themselves.

Chief Terry Armstrong of the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service says officers do not have the tools they need to do prevention work in the Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario which his force serves. (Julia Page/CBC)

In more than half of the communities, officers work alone, without even access to a radio communication system in some cases, the commissioners heard.

Because the majority of the communities can only be reached by air, it can take hours for backup to arrive to help apprehend a suspect, even in the event of a homicide, and to secure crime scenes.

"It's very disturbing — the realities of policing [in these communities] is, it's not safe," said Armstrong.

Opioid crisis 'devastating communities'

The chairman of the NAPS board, Mike Metatawabin, said this underfunding inevitably has prevented the police service from protecting women and girls.

He said with so few resources, it's not always possible to intervene in situations of domestic abuse, which has led women to flee their communities for urban centres — often putting them at further risk.

"Providing justice at the community level is what is missing," said Metatawabin.

Mike Metatawabin, chairman of the board of the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service, says calls for additional funding to the NAPS went unanswered from both the provincial and federal governments for years. (Julia Page/CBC)

The social problems stemming from alcohol abuse are now exacerbated by the opioid crisis, which is a major threat across Northern Ontario, he said.

"Communities are at a crisis point. We're not prepared for this," said Metatawabin.

Faced with these growing social problems, Armstrong said policing is sometimes "like driving a car with no brakes."

"You're hanging on with your fingernails. It's not a way to do business, and it's certainly not safe," Armstrong said.

Underfunding prevents police from doing any preventative work in communities, according to Metatawabin. 

"We're just putting out fires," he said.

He said it's important to figure out why so many young people are turning to opioids.

Metatawabin said grandparents in northern Ontario are having to leave their work to take care of grandchildren, because the children's parents have become addicted.

"We're losing our young mothers. We need to do something," he said, deploring the fact that recommendations from inquiries like the MMIWG are non-binding and therefore don't necessarily bring the change that is needed.

Historical agreement

After years of failed negotiations to increase its funding, in 2017 NAPS recommended disbanding itself during the inquest into the death of a 23-year-old woman in the back of a police truck.

Lena Anderson, from the Kasabonka Lake First Nation, was being held in custody in the passenger compartment of a police pickup in February 2013, because there were no holding cells in the remote community.

While the officer on duty got out of the vehicle to wake up the community's only other officer to ask for assistance, Anderson committed suicide.

The police service told the coroner at the time that it could no longer ensure the safety of its citizens and recommended that Ontario Provincial Police take over.

"We weren't doing justice to our people," Metatawabin told the MMIWG commissioners.

This call for action was at first ignored by both levels of government. But in 2018, NAPS at last persuaded the Ontario government to amend its Police Services Act.

MMIWG Commissioner Qajaq Robinson spoke at the opening ceremony of the hearings in Quebec City, on Sept. 17, 2018. (Julia Page/CBC)

By doing so, Ontario is now legally obliged to provide sufficient funding to protect First Nations, instead of giving a lump sum to Indigenous police forces, as was the case before the agreement.

Metatawabin said he believes this should be applied to all Indigenous police forces across Canada, to ensure all Canadians are provided with the same privileges.

"I am hopeful that once this process passes, it will spread across the nation, across the country."

With a new government in place in Ontario, Armstrong was asked if he was fearful Premier Doug Ford's party could modify sections of Bill 175, including this new funding agreement.

"Yes," he answered.

Commissioner Michèle Audette said later that it was "disturbing" to be presented with evidence that in 2018, there was still inequality in the services provided to Canadian citizens.

"And it is often women and children who pay the price," she commented, also highlighting the need for more women officers in Indigenous police services.

Inquiry nears end

This is the inquiry's third stop in Quebec.

Last November,the commission heard devastating testimonies from the province's First Nations in Mani-Utenam, Que., an Innu community on the North Shore.

The hearings shed light on the widespread trauma a Belgian missionary left on Innu communities in Quebec. It was the first time allegations of sexual abuse against Alexis Joveneau were made public.

Testimonies heard in Mani-Utenam, and later in Montreal in March 2018, also depicted a troubling pattern of children never returning home after being treated in hospital during the 1950s and '60s.

More than 1,270 families and survivors have shared their experiences with the commission so far.

In March, chief commissioner Marion Buller asked for an additional two years and an extra $50 million to connect with more women and girls, emphasizing the need to meet some witnesses in a private setting.

"Vulnerable populations require special care from start to finish. They need to be able to feel safe," Buller said.

The federal government allowed a six-month extension, asking the final report be written by April 30, 2019.